After leaving Malaysia, we headed north toward Thailand. It was my first overland border crossing in Asia, and it went really smoothly. Some crossings, like Thailand into Cambodia, have a long-standing, well-deserved, terrible reputation for scams, bribery, long waits, and other travel hassles. But Malaysia to Thailand was so easy!
We took an overnight train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth (still in Malaysia). In Butterworth, we walked across the street from the train station to the bus station, where we got a ticket for a mini-bus bound for Hat Yai in Thailand. At the border, we got out of the mini-bus, went through immigration (already had a tourist visa from Kuala Lumpur), and got back in the mini-bus. In Hat Yai, we got some Thai baht out of an ATM and got onto another local mini-bus bound for Surat Thani. By that evening, we were walking around Surat Thani, looking for a way to Koh Tao. We bought tickets on the overnight ferry, and I slept like a baby in its mother's arms. In the morning, we payed a small fortune for a pick-up truck to bring us from the ferry to a deserted bay on the far side of the island. And what did we find there?
There are so many beautiful tropical islands on this great dewdrop, but I've never had the pleasure of visiting one. I'm so glad that we found ourselves on Koh Tao. It was random, actually--I did a quick google search to find a place that wouldn't be terribly affected by the monsoon season. Koh Tao, along with the more famous Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, are off the eastern coast of Thailand. The full moon fell during our visit, so most of the backpackers left for Koh Phangan and the infamous Full Moon Party, so we had the place to ourselves.
The hiking was like the other hiking I've found in Malaysia and Indonesia. The paths aren't very well marked, and no one really knows the way, but it was refreshing to wander in the woods for a day.
We also went climbing one day. There is a local shop, "Goodtime Adventures," that rents out shoes, harnesses, draws, and ropes. The gear seems to be ok quality, good enough that I felt safe using it. According to Dave, some of the fixed anchors are suspect, core showing in static line (he brought this to the attention of the staff). Lesson of the day: know what you're doing. This is why Davo built all our anchors. :-D
The climbing is mostly granite slab. There's just one technique: SMEAR. Seriously, there are no hands, and you don't need to think about any sequence. Just slap your shoes on the super-rough granite and smear your way up the wall. Toward the end of the day, I was getting the hang of it. It was great to climb again, even for a day. I've only climbed twice since leaving the United States. It definitely made me think of my friends at home, and I was very thankful that the Gunks are only a 3.5 hour drive from Ithaca!
My other big adventure: I went scuba diving! This was pretty big for me. Even though I used to like being in the water as a kid, I've gotten more nervous in the water as I've gotten older. I get freaked out when I can't see what's underneath me, can't see my arms and legs in murky water... basically, I'm afraid of sea monsters that might bite me in half. :-) As I stood on the edge of the dive boat and started panicking, I wasn't sure if I was going in the water at all. I had to take off my fins and, with a white-knuckled grip, lower my self down a ladder.
Once I was in the water, it was great! I had prescription goggles, so I could see everything. The water was very clear, so no sea monsters could sneak up! Plus, I had fins and was wearing a wetsuit, so I felt pretty well protected.
What a world, under the water... just as there are so many insects, frogs, skinks, butterflies, birds, and all manner of critters in the forest, there are big and small fishes, sea slugs, prickly things, smooth things, skinny things, fat things, and every manner of critter under the waves. I had never fully realized how much lives in the water!
Not only is there tons of wildlife in a reef, but the coral forms all manner of underwater shapes. I imagine there must be entire mountains under the ocean. I think of mountains all the time, but they usually have trees or snow on them. Neat to think this exists under the sea (minus the snow).
Plus, scuba diving itself is really neat. You can stay underwater for so long that you can really take the time to appreciate what's happening around you.
I probably won't dive again, but I'm really glad I did it once. And that's what I can say about Koh Tao: I'll probably spend a lot more time in the mountains than I'll ever spend on a tropical island, or even on a beach, but beaches and tropical islands are still quite nice.
Suggestions for visiting Koh Tao:
- Number one tip: Visit during the full moon, and all the backpackers will be on Koh Phangan, leaving you in peace!
- Buy your ticket on the overnight ferry directly from the jetty in Surat Thani. Travel agents in town will not give you the best price. If you buy your return ticket in Koh Tao, make sure the agent actually secures you a ticket with a bed number, not a voucher, or you might be sleeping on a straw mat outside. Pack earplugs and a bandana for your eyes for the overnight boat. Some of the ferries have air conditioning, so you might want to keep a sweater, too. The price for us was 550 baht per person.
- We stayed a few nights in Tanote Bay, which was lovely and secluded, but food prices were quite high, internet access was non-existent, and there wasn't much to do besides snorkel or curl up with a good book. We found a place for 400 baht at the far south of the beach (there are only 5 accommodation choices on the entire beach). If you're going to Tanote Bay, get the cell phone number of a taxi driver, or you're stuck taking the fixed-price taxis run by the accommodation back to Mae Head or Sairee.
- The rest of the time, we stayed on Sairee Beach at Sairee Cottage. The usual cold water, fan room for 400 baht. We also did our dives through Sairee Cottage, and everything went fine. Hey, I'm still here, aren't I!
- We ate at this one restaurant called Krua Thai for pretty much every dinner. The guys that work there are really great. One of them has a little boy, about 18 months old. One night, he indicated that the kid was driving him nuts, and therefore Davo had to drink whiskey and soda with him. Why not!